SARASOTA — Perhaps as big as Sarasota County’s extension of the Legacy Trail is Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s potential construction of a new aquarium at the county’s northern gateway.

That potential took a huge leap toward reality Jan. 31 with the unanimous approval by Sarasota County commissioners of several agreements with Mote to move the project along.

Key to these agreements was a document called an omnibus agreement that, according to Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson, will “govern the transfer of the land to Mote.”

That omnibus agreement contains a number of sub-agreements pertaining to the development of the project, including provisions for both short-term and long-term leases, parking studies, and an access agreement.

A key provision appearing in several of those agreements is a requirement that Mote provide proof of funding, particularly before a conveyance of the property to the organization occurs.

Johnson told commissioners that could be in the form of grants, bonds, a bank loan, or some other form acceptable to the county.

Mote has already begun a fundraising campaign for the $130 million project, and has asked the county to chip in with $20 million in financial support.

That request has not yet been acted upon by the county commissioners.

The agreements approved Wednesday were required by a term sheet between the county and Mote approved by commissioners last October that set a deadline of Jan. 30, for their completion and approval.

“We met our deadline,” Johnson said in an aside during his presentation.

The short-term, two-year lease will allow Mote to move forward with their due diligence investigation, preparing for future land-use approvals, and constructing improvements to the parking lot on the western part of the property.

Other provisions in the agreements limit the use of the property solely to an aquarium, and reversion of the property to the county in the event that Mote fails to develop the facility.

Commissioners did not delve into the details of the agreements, but instead, heaped praise on county and Mote staff for completion of the deal.

“We put some tough deadlines on you,” Commission Chairman Charles Hines told Johnson. “But this is a big deal. Great job.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert said it was going to create an impression for motorists entering Sarasota County from the north on Interstate 75.

“It’s going to be something to look forward to for the next 40 years,” she added.

While he also praised the negotiating teams, Commissioner Mike Moran had a slightly different take on the deal.

“This allows for the expansion of Mote for science and research on City Island (Mote’s current location),” Moran said. “The backbone of Mote is science and research.”

Last February, Mote announced its desire to relocate to a new site after years at City Island in the city of Sarasota. It identified a 12-acre site at Nathan Benderson Park, adjacent to I-75 and University Parkway in North County, as ideal for the new facility, and commenced negotiations with the county over acquisition of the property.

With approval of the agreements Wednesday, county staff will now work with Mote representatives on the execution of the short-term lease, fulfilling the conditions precedent contained in the various documents, the due diligence items, and developing the land use approvals.

If everything goes according to plan, the county and Mote will enter a long-term lease of 40 years, with options to renew for five 10-year periods.

Mote Marine had its beginnings in Placida with the founding of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory by Eugenie Clark. Today, Mote is a premier marine research organization.

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